How to pay your dues in the kitchen

By Paul Sorgule, M.S., AAC

One of the downsides to a formal culinary education is that young culinarians tend to lack the patience to pace their rise to the top. What time has taught me, as well as many other chefs, is that there really is no shortcut to excellence. The degree will prove invaluable as graduates take one step at a time towards that first sous chef position, but it is patience that sets the course for success when the time is right.

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” – Aristotle

Patience is a critical skill that comes from an understanding of where an individual wants to be and the process that will lead to that end. Work methodically towards your goal, and know when you are ready and when you are not. Those young cooks who thrust prematurely into a position of responsibility will fail more often than not.

The following words of advice may help tomorrow’s chefs understand the need to pay their dues first.

A chef is only successful when he or she is surrounded by a team of supporters. Respect is not a right; it must be earned through consistent actions. A cook should never assume that respect comes with the title. It comes when the chef demonstrates that this respect is a reflection of his or her daily actions. Trust is even more difficult to earn, and it only comes over time when a chef’s actions demonstrate that he or she walks the talk. Trust is a two-sided action. Time allows you to learn how important it is to trust your fellow workers. When this happens, the planets are aligned.

“Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work.” – Warren Bennis

Great restaurants run in the same manner as a unified sports team with a single focus on winning. Leadership among this group is oftentimes shared by individuals who own this common goal, not simply because a person in authority deems it so. You must demonstrate the ability to serve as a member of the team before recognition of your role as a chef is evident.

Cooks who are promoted to the position of chef before they are ready will often approach the job as an opportunity to place their signature on the operation. If there is one surefire way to alienate a team, it is to change without winning over their hearts and minds. This takes time, respect, and trust.

There are many things in life that can only be taught through experience. Always remember that challenges and crises are opportunities for seasoned leaders to demonstrate successful action. Your team needs to have confidence in your ability to problem-solve and make well-thought-out decisions. The only way that this skill can be developed is through experiencing challenges and learning what to do and what not to do. When a cook melts down on the line, the chef will need to have a solution. If the power goes out on a Friday night with a full dining room, all eyes will be on the chef to carry the torch. When food cost is way out of line, management will expect the chef to identify the source of the problem and correct it. All of these situations lean heavily on experience.

Until a cook is faced with challenges without answers, he or she may see their path to the top as a right and a natural transition. Inexperience can be dangerous until the cook admits what he or she doesn’t know and sets a course to find the answers and grow into a position of responsibility.

Regardless of age, and despite the level of formal education, the most successful chefs are those who understand that it will take time to earn the title, respect, and trust that come with the role.

“To be great at anything, you can’t avoid a fundamental law:  you have to pay your dues.” – Joe Pane

Paul Sorgule has been a chef and educator for more than four decades holding positions as hotel executive chef, food and beverage director, faculty member, dean of culinary arts and provost at a prominent culinary college. Sorgule is president of Harvest America Ventures, a restaurant and culinary school consulting and training company he formed in 2012. He blogs about culinary issues and finding that work/life balance at